Contemporary fantastical stories have the wonderful ability to jerk us from the familiar and plunge us into the sheer strangeness of living in the twenty-first century, says Word Factory Apprentice Award Winner Giselle Leeb.
I didn’t set out to write literary stories about talking monkeys, or an ambitious hare, desperate for humanity’s perks, or about a cyborg searching for his human roots in a theme park. I’ve also written many ‘realist’ stories. I’m trying to get at some truth about life, the thing literary writers do, and sometimes the fantastical does this better than conventional realism.
Yet fantastical fiction is often not considered as true-blue literary. I’ve sent off fantastical stories to competitions, only to read the judges’ reports afterwards, which say something like: reality is enough, you don’t need to make weird things up. Many literary magazines, including some that ask you to submit the unusual, rarely publish these types of stories.
Why didn’t you say so in the guidelines? I want to ask the judges and editors. And have you read ‘The Forty Litre Monkey?’ by Adam Marek, or anything by George Saunders or Kelly Link?
Even writers such as Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, and Angela Carter experienced these difficulties in the early stages of their careers. The late Clive James seemed to sum up this attitude towards fantastical fiction when he wrote:
The most overrated books almost all emerged simultaneously from a single genre: magic realism. I can’t stand it. I always found ordinary realism quite magic enough.
In his article, ‘Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction’, Ben Marcus provides a counter-argument:
Of the many kinds of literary-fiction writers, it’s the group called the realists who have, by far, both the most desirable and the least accurate name. One might easily think that they have the right of first refusal to the true doings of the world, a pair of proprietry goggles with special reality-tuned lenses…Anyone who has not been invited into the realist camp is slurred as being merely experimental, whether or not his or her language is a gambit for producing reality on the page.
Marcus isn’t arguing against realist fiction. He’s simply tired of ‘experimental’ writing being dismissed as ‘other’, protesting against a view that we must replicate the past, instead of continuing the vital play necessary for literature to keep discovering new things. He goes on to praise writers working in the realist mode “who are keen to interrogate the assumptions of realism and bend the habitual gestures around new shapes”.
‘Non-realist’ and ‘experimental’ make realism sound like the gold standard, and I’m suspicious of words beginning with ‘non-’
Oddly, although fantastical fiction is included in definitions of experimental fiction, it isn’t always accepted as such by some experimental publications.
But trying to segregate stories into strict categories is part of the problem. Labelling every type of fantastical fiction as ‘magic realism’ is a bit like pigeon-holing Underworld and Orbital as noisy techno/house when you’ve only listened to one fairground gabber track.
Fantastical, weird, fabulist, new-weird, slipstream, magical realist, weird-literary, literary-speculative, literary-horror, cross-genre, bizarro, or just literary…I’ve spent many hours trying to decide where a fantastical literary story fits when submitting. To make it harder, guidelines sometimes state: no sci-fi or fantasy. Yes, my story is set in the future, yes, odd things happen, but it’s literary, i.e. concerned with language, style, depth, relationships, and ideas. And what about Octavia E. Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Doris Lessing?
But things are changing. Kelly Link a USA writer who exemplifies the literary-speculative genre, and who has been called the blue-collar Angela Carter, says:
I think that this is a period during which there is a lot of crossover: there are many writers coming from the mainstream who are using elements of speculative fiction, or genre fiction and vice versa.
“Slipstream’ is a wonderful (if debated) term to describe this contemporary, fantastical fiction. I first came across it in ‘Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology’.
The editors quote Bruce Sterling, who invented the term:
This genre is not category SF; it is not even ‘genre’ SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a ‘sense of wonder’ or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction.
Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel…
The anthology includes stories by Kelly Link and George Saunders, and a story with an unforgettable atmosphere, ‘You Have Never Been Here’ by Mary Rickert.
In the UK, we’ve got the inimitable Charles Wilkinson, formerly a literary writer and now a folk horror writer, but commenting on contemporary society whatever genre he’s writing in. And Irenosen Okojie (I have to make a special mention of her hilarious description of Will Self in her short story, ‘Jody’) who has the balls to play and experiment. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about pushing boundaries, expanding what we call literature. And Helen Oyeyemi, Daisy Johnson, Leone Ross, Tania Hershman, and Adam Marek.
Fabulist fiction’s great strength is its ability to jerk us from complacency. David Lodge in ‘The Art of Fiction’ says:
Defamiliarization is the usual English translation of ostranenie (literally, “making strange”)…In a famous essay first published in 1917, Victor Shklovsky argued that the essential purpose of art is to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways…
He quotes from Shklovsky’s essay:
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.
How about this from June Caldwell’s stunning, ‘mostly realist’ collection (although it does include a story about a man living in a tree):
That night I woke at 2.23 a.m. I will never forget the exact time because I saw in the pitiful light of the green alarm clock, my father crawling around the wall like a crazed lizard…Flipping and flopping around on the top of the Billy bookcases, side to side, like you’d expect to see in the House of Reptiles at Dublin Zoo.
This scene conveys the terror that autocratic parents invoke in their grown-up children more effectively than many ‘strictly realist’ scenes could. It’s bloody scary and it’s doing what all good literature does: it conveys how we actually feel, on the inside. Which goes back to Ben Marcus:
If literary titles were about artistic merit and not the rules of convention, about achievement and not safety, the term “realism” would be an honorary one, conferred only on writing that actually builds unsentimentalized reality on the page, matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language. It would be assigned no matter the stylistic or linguistic method, no matter the form…In such a scheme, Gary Lutz, George Saunders, and Aimee Bender would be considered realists alongside William Trevor, Alistair MacLeod, and Alice Munro. It would be a title you’d have to work for, and not just one you inherited because you favored a certain compositional style.
I was very excited to read about how we manufacture consensual reality, in ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari. For example, money is a shared construct. If we all refused to recognise it, it would cease to exist. The corollary to this struck me a while later, with joy: things can change, we can create new realities. I could almost feel the edges of our world start to soften and morph.
Angela Carter deliciously said that she was writing a ‘social realism of the unconscious’. Life is getting stranger as what was once the future becomes our present, and literature is a response to life. Let’s open our hearts and minds to everything in fiction, and keep finding new ways to tell stories. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend starting with Robert Olen Butler’s ‘Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot’. You may find that cuckolded parrot is a lot more similar to you than you thought.
Giselle Leeb grew up in South Africa and lives in Nottingham. Her short stories have appeared in over thirty publications including Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt), Ambit, Mslexia, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, The Lonely Crowd, Black Static, Litro, and other places. She has placed and been shortlisted in competitions including the Ambit, Bridport and Mslexia. She is a Word Factory Apprentice Award winner 2019/2020 and an assistant editor at Reckoning Journal. http://giselleleeb.com